This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

August 27, 2009 - defend your opinions!

I subscribe to various Google services. When I log into one of them, I get quotes of the day. They're usually pretty funny.

Take this one: "An opinion should be the result of thought, not a substitute for it." - Jeff Mallett.

I just finished reading a very fine historical work, "From Redstone to Ludlow: John Cleveland Osgood's Struggle Against the United Mine Works for America," by F. Darrel Munsell, professor emeritus, West Texas A&M University. I'll be interviewing him for our Authors @ Douglas County Libraries TV show. Both Redstone and Ludlow are in Colorado, and of course, the Ludlow Massacre was an important event in the history of labor relations. (Seven of the Ludlow miners were even tried in Castle Rock -- and acquitted.)

Although I've written a book myself, I have to admit that I just don't have the academic rigor on display here. If Munsell makes an assertion of fact, it's footnoted. The source is clearly identified. If it's impossible to say what actually happened -- for instance, who fired the first shot at the Ludlow Massacre -- then he says flat out that there's no way to know for sure.

Munsell also does a fine job of digging into piles of historical documents, and coming out with a clear, intelligent summary of what happened. He draws some conclusions at the end, and those are backed up with lots of supporting evidence.

In short, he seems to take Jeff Mallett's advice: Munsell's opinions rest on a scrupulous examination of the facts.

That's rare. Like everybody else, I've been reading the newspaper about town hall meetings, and sampling websites and opinion pieces and reports about the health care debate. I make an effort to sample things on both sides, too. I've learned that no one source of information is consistently correct.

I've read misleading, and sometimes (I suspect) deliberately distorted information from everybody: conservatives and liberals, religious and secular, private versus public, you name it.

And why is that? Well, I think it comes down to this: human beings aren't as a class particularly good at telling the truth. We're good at telling stories.

The way our brains work is that we gin up a reasonable enough explanation for something we've seen or heard. Usually, that information is a little scanty. But once we buy into the opinion, we tend to ignore any information that contradicts it.

It takes real, often laborious work to catch ourselves in our premises, then to open our minds enough to consider the alternatives.

The process is made worse, particularly in political debate, because it so often becomes personal. Few people say, "Ah, I see why you think that. But I ran across this information and it made me see things in a new light. Let me know what you make of it."

Instead, they say, "what kind of idiot would believe this! You're biased, wrong, evil! You should just shut up!"

All of which tends to cast plenty of heat, but very little light.

I did a little experiment about this. Last week, I posted my own piece about rising health care costs on the library website. (My columns are there anyhow.) But this one was a little different. I posted it to cycle through the library's front page. And I turned on the ability for the public to leave comments. (After leaving it up for a week, I've turned OFF the ability to leave new comments.)

That was a little risky from a data security standpoint. Almost immediately, we tracked the attempt of hackers to insert malicious code into our website. I think (I hope) we caught it all.

But I did get some comments on the article. Only one of them provided a link to information of his own. Most folks just made a host of political assumptions, and went on the attack.

As I noted in my own responses, libraries are advocates for free speech. The library website might well serve as a public forum to help everyone in the community to explore issues of the day. That might be useful.

But that exploration seems to mean this: we'll probably spend more time defending our opinions than trying to form better ones.

LaRue's View are his own.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

August 13, 2009 - The Intersection of Two Worlds Benefits Library by Sheila Kerber, Manager, Philip S. Miller Library

This is a tale of two people with a passion for art and education who were once strangers from opposite ends of the world.

We will begin with Carolyn H. Korutz who was born in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. Carolyn was a true lifelong learner. She sang in the church choir with her four siblings. She loved to read and had a wonderful collection of books. Her Webster’s Dictionary was her daily companion. Her copy of the complete works of Shakespeare is well-worn, with notes penciled in the margin. Her daughters, Suzanne Kruger and Gretchen Cleveland remember fondly the hours their mother spent introducing them to the magic of words, illustrations and characters. Reading was a shared family pleasure and they made a game of quoting from favorite stories and poems. Carolyn spent happy hours at the public library.

So how does Carolyn H. Korutz’s life intertwine with the life of Tirivanhu Medziso? Tirivanhu is the fourth child in family of seven from rural Zimbabwe. He was raised in a rondavel, a house constructed from stones and a mortar made of sand, soil and cow dung. Mr. Medziso walked barefoot several miles to attend a rural school which had no books, pencils or paper. He learned to do his work in the sand with a stick as a pencil. In primary school a craft teacher recognized his natural sculpting ability and encouraged him to continue. Mr. Medziso paid his secondary school fees through the sale of some of his early sculptures. When he completed secondary school, he traveled to South Africa. There he studied under a Zimbabwean Stone Carver for six months.
Tirivanhu uses basic tools to carve a living out of the stone from the hills some distance from his home. He hires an ox cart to transport the stone from the mine to his open air work area. He heats old tablespoons, knives, etc. in the fire and then pounds them into a shape he needs.There is no electricity in his town. His sculptures convey an intimacy and understanding of everyday life. Tirivanhu has been able to support his family through the sale of his sculptures.

We are about to celebrate the 20th Artfest on September 12 and 13 and it was at an Artfest a few years ago that these two stories come together. Carolyn Korutz was strolling from booth to booth admiring paintings, photography and glass work when she felt compelled to visit a booth where she saw an abstract sculpture which depicted a mother reading to her child. She learned that the sculptor was visiting from Zimbabwe. She moved on so that she could catch up with her daughter, Suzanne. She related her experience to her daughter and she said that she also had been drawn to the same sculpture. They returned to the booth and Carolyn could not leave without purchasing the sculpture.

When Carolyn’s health began to fail she told her daughter that in the event of her death she would like to give the sculpture to her local library in Castle Rock. She had spent so many happy and fulfilling hours at the Philip S. Miller Library that she wanted to the sculpture to find a permanent home there.

A reception was held on Monday, July 27, where the artist, Tirivanhu Medziso and Carolyn’s daughters, Suzanne Kruger and Gretchen Cleveland met with Library Director, Jamie LaRue. Kruger said, “Libraries were a source of great pleasure and nourishment to my mother over her lifetime.”

Korutz like, Tirivanhu Medziso, was someone who loved to learn. She spent every one of her 91 years increasing her knowledge and appreciation of the world. There is a Zimbabwe Proverb which says “If you can walk you can dance. If you can talk you can sing.” Carolyn H. Korutz and Tirivanhu Medziso are people who we know never walked when they could dance and never talked when they could sing.

If you would like to see the work of the sculptor, Tirivanhu Medziso, visit Douglas County Libraries, Philip S. Miller Library or stop at his booth at Artfest 2009. The Castle Rock Artfest is located in downtown Castle Rock at the Castle Rock Town Hall and Philip S. Miller Library Parking lots.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

August 6, 2009 - 10,000 hours makes mastery

When I was young, and first taking piano lessons, Mozart really bothered me. I don't mean that his music bothered me. The music was charming and irresistible.

I was bothered by the fact of him. He was writing sonatinas practically as an infant. By the time he was a teenager, he could listen to long, complex symphonic performances just once, then go home and write down every note.

It wasn't fair.

Later, I used to think that the only rational explanation was reincarnation. You work on something for 7 lives, then you get born with all that practice encoded in your DNA. That made sense: as ye sow, so shall ye reap. It just takes time. Lifetimes.

Of course, we don't actually know that the world IS fair. Evidence argues against it. And the data for reincarnation is also a little murky.

But it turns out there's another explanation for Mozart. I read about it in Malcolm Gladwell's book, "Outliers." In brief, the idea is this: practice anything for 10,000 hours, and you have a breakthrough. You achieve something that to the rest of us looks like magic or mastery.

Mozart's tyrant of a father had Mozart practicing almost from birth. And guess what? By the time he was the age I was when I started my tentative one note plunkings, Mozart the boy had put in his 10,000 hours.

Of course, you do have to have some talent. Time alone doesn't do it. But who is going to put in 10,000 hours doing something they don't have a knack for? The key to significant accomplishment is that combination: something you're good at, plus lots and lots of hours of preparation.

This sidesteps another question: was it worth it for Mozart? He gave us extraordinary music. But he died in poverty, and fairly young. Does the example of Mozart give parents the right to rob their children of their childhoods, as the Soviet Union once did in the case of promising gymnasts?

Of course, without that big push, maybe nobody today would remember Mozart. Is it better to have a peaceful life, or a life of remembered greatness ... and strife?

That, and you may quote me, is an excellent question.

With children, I'm inclined to cut them some slack, give them big, unstructured dollops of time running through the woods, cavorting in mountains, or frolicking in water.

With the library, I'm inclined to push for greatness.

As noted a few weeks ago, the Douglas County Libraries came into a new population ranking (250,000 up to 500,000) as the number one library in the country. (See "Hennen's American Public Library Ratings.") A few folks have asked me how we did that.

The answer is really pretty straightforward: we applied consistent effort in some consistent directions (quality service, advocacy for literacy, getting as many library materials in people's homes as possible) for many years. Eventually, we got good at all that.

When I was first starting out in libraries, I ran across several directors who were resume builders: popping in, launching hot new initiatives, then getting out before anyone really knew whether or not they had worked. But that's like trying to cross the ocean in a fancy high tech rowboat -- and changing the direction of the rowing at random.

So for people, here's this week's moral: start practicing. 10,000 hours is about 5 work years (40 hours a week). You can do it.

For institutions: the trick isn't innovation. It's consistent application of effort that leads to accomplishment.

LaRue's Views are his own.